Tony Abbott’s history

It is quite clear that Abbott is a western traditionalist when it comes to his interest in the past. Dean Lewins/ AAP

Wherever does our prime minister get his technique for historical analysis?

Just before last week’s chaotic carbon tax repeal scenes in Canberra, prime minister Tony Abbott offended the People’s Republic of China and a large element within the largely conservative RSL by controversially proclaiming the virtues of second world war Japanese submariners to visiting neo-nationalist Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. Abbott said:

We admired the skill and the sense of honour that they brought to their task, although we disagreed with what they did. Perhaps we grasped, even then, that with a change of heart the fiercest of opponents could be the best of friends.

Abbott and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pose for a photograph on July 9. Alan Porritt/AAP

A few days earlier, Abbott offended a broad range of Australian Indigenous and non-Indigenous opinion by commenting at an economics conference that 18th century Australia had been “unsettled or scarcely settled great south land”. There was a noticeable pause between “unsettled” and “scarcely settled”. Presumably Abbott had realised where he’d been heading with “unsettled”.

There has been more. In June, Abbott released what was intended to be a filmed tribute to the Australian contribution to the June 6, 1944 D-Day landings. He turned the commemoration into a crass “open for business” political speech. Only 30 seconds of the two-minute clip was about D-Day. The rest was a distasteful business/partisan political spruik.

It is quite clear from his speeches, his actions and from his 2009 autobiography Battlelines that Abbott is a western traditionalist when it comes to his interest in the past. Even as a young child he was an avid reader of the UK’s very popular Ladybird books about great heroes of history (most of whom were British) in which, according to Abbott, “duty and honour carried the day”.

His 1960s Jesuit schooling at Saint Ignatius’ College in Riverview (NSW) emphasised Greek and Roman achievements before turning to a narrative history of British imperial triumphs, a perspective that turned him into a budding Anglophile. Not only that but, as Abbott reports in Battlelines, his conservative political consciousness was awakened as early 1972 when his year nine history teacher set an essay on the political parties contesting the election of that year.

As he remembers it, Abbott favoured the DLP for its “traditional values as well as its support for workers within a market economy”. The latter comment is a politically-motivated confabulation. The DLP had no real interest in economic policy.

Tony Abbott places a cross at a grave of an Australian serviceman as he arrives to attend a D-Day commemoration ceremony in France, June 6. Leon Neal/EPA

The second influence on the historical consciousness of the young Abbott was his religion. His Jesuit mentors instilled in him the importance of service and the significance of contrition. His most important patron at this stage in his life was colourful Riverview priest Emmett Costello who, according to David Marr (in his excellent and illuminating Quarterly Essay, Political Animal: the Making of Tony Abbott) was:

devoted to the papacy. His life’s work was to find and shape leaders in the interest of the order and the faith.

Tony Abbott was one such.

Abbott’s historical Catholicism comes through strongly, especially when he improvises, as, for example, in citing Jesus in his February 2010 Victorian values comment on homelessness, “the poor you have with you always”. In April 2010 he continued to check with Jesus when he argued, apropos asylum speakers:

Jesus knew that there was a place for everything and it’s not necessarily everyone’s place to come to Australia.

He added to his litany of Jesus references when he gave an impromptu history lesson in May 2010 to South Australian primary school students on climate change – as it might have affected Jesus. Further, in July 2012 in a muddled extemporisation, he accused mainly non-Christian asylum seekers of un-Christian behaviour.

Abbott visits the Trinity Gardens Primary School in Adelaide in May, 2010. Angela Harper/AAP Image

In the larger scheme of things Abbott’s western historical worldview is driven by archaic anti-secularist Catholic values. He founds his political views on firmly held, ahistorical belief rather than on rational investigation, as evidenced in his “climate change argument is absolute crap” remark, which he confirmed to ABC’s Kerry O’Brien in February 2010.

The third professed element in the construction of the Abbott historical consciousness is his attachment to conservative thinkers including the National Civic Council’s Bob Santamaria (detestation of socialism), UK philosopher Roger Scruton (respect for existing culture, institutions and love of country), 18th-century Irish politician and philosopher Edmund Burke (organic growth of the state) and UK philosopher Michael Oakeshott (incremental political change is best).

This is ironic really considering Abbott’s current crash or crash-through approach to government.

This suggests that the ideological basis of Abbott’s grasp of history will always be Anglo-centric and narrowly commemorative and celebratory rather than based on probing, open-ended inquiry. Since the word history comes from the Greek for finding out, there’s an uncomfortable fit there.

In summary, when it comes to history there seem to be at least three Tony Abbotts at work.

First we have the from-my-Catholic-subconscious-to-my-lips extemporiser.

Second, we have the discursive-but-with-firm-intent traditionalist ruminator.

Finally, we have Abbott the political operator, an opportunistic, labile, gallery-pleaser who will, for example, use an outdated view of a controversial aspect of Australian history to coax an audience of economists and financiers towards free marketism, who will controversially refer to history in an expedient attempt to please a visiting prime minister or who will use the commemoration of an important and poignant historical event for partisan political purposes – and to attract overseas business to Australia.

Next year we will witness the centenary of Gallipoli. If he is still in office, I expect we’ll see a great deal more of Tony Abbott ideologue, opportunist and sombre-faced commemorator.